Two women with shopping bags resting their feet, a girl on a horse, a trade union leader, politician, musicians, writers, an ancient hero who may or may not be a figure of myth, a fiddler, a couple dancing, a cinema usher: Dublin is, indeed, a city of statues. In thinking about how stories of Dublin are told, there are four statues I’d point out to you.
Molly Malone, who at this writing has moved (because of public transport construction work) from her spot on Grafton Street to a place up near the Dublin Tourist office in Suffolk Street, is used to greeting tourists. It’s a popular thing for folk to take pictures with this image of a woman peddling, as the song would have it, cockles and mussels, alive, alive o. The song is the reason I have Molly in my list of top four. Dublin is a city of music. Ireland is a country of music. Harps on the Irish minted coinage, harps on passports and other official documents remind of this, and so does Molly.
Her song is one just about every Irish person and person of Irish descent knows and has joined at one time or another — and plenty of those who have no Irish blood have joined in the singing too.The song, which begins with the line “In Dublin’s fair city…” has become for some an unofficial anthem of the town, though it may have originated in Scotland or in Massachusetts. The statue, designed by Jean Rynhart, was created to mark Dublin’s first millenium and was placed in Grafton Street in 1988. Music, community, inclusion, history, storytelling: those are all part of the story of Dublin, and of Molly Malone’s song.
Ireland is a place of poets and writers, too, so for the second statue on our trip I’ll point out Patrick Kavanagh as he gazes at the Grand Canal. There’s space on the bench beside him if you feel like joining his reverie. Kavanagh started out in Monaghan, as a farmer, and later moved to the capital city. One of his best known poems treats of the Great Hunger from a farmer’s eye view. His work has influenced such diverse talents as actor Russell Crowe and poet Seamus Heany. Other of his works have been made into songs, notably Raglan Road, which has been covered by Luke Kelly and Mary Black, among others. The statue is by John Coll, and was unveiled as part of the celebration of Dublin as a European City of culture in 1991.
That Great Hunger, the famine of the mid nineteenth century, which flung Ireland’s sons and daughters out across the world to England, to Scotland, to Canada, the United States, Mexico, New Zealand, just to name a few countries, is the subject of our next visit, in Dublin’s Docklands along at Custom House Quay. Back in the days when Dublin Airport had just one terminal, in the area where flights left for the States and Canada, there was a large photograph on the wall of these statues. Terminal Two at the airport hasn’t such a photo in the North American departure area, at least not yet, but it could be a good idea. Standing in the presence of these figures — frail, emaciated, carrying small bundles of all they had of hope, and of courage, walking on to they knew not what — whatever your ancestry or connection with Ireland, you cannot help but be moved. The official name is the Famine Memorial, but in my mind I always think of them as the emigration statues. The figures were commissioned by Norma Smurfit and designed and made by sculptor Rowan Gillespie, put in place in 1997. They represent a time and circumstance and series of choices which changed not only the face or Ireland, but the face of the world.
The emigration statues are about courage and hope, and so, in another way, a way that references the importance of legend and myth in telling the story of Dublin and of Ireland, is the last statue in our tour of four: the Children of Lir at the Garden of Remembrance near Parnell Square.
There is a plaque next to the statue, which says
In the darkness of despair we saw a vision.
We lit the light of hope and it was not
extinguished. In the desert of discouragement
we saw a vision. We planted the tree of
valour and it blossomed. In the winter of
bondage we saw a vision. We melted the
snow of lethargy and the river of resurrection
flowed from it. We sent our vision aswim
like a swan on the river. The vision became a
reality. Winter became summer. Bondage
became freedom and this we left to you as
our inheritance. O generations of freedom
remember us. The generations of the vision.
In legend, the children of Lir were turned into swans by a curse, and meant to be held that way for three hundred years and until, as often happens in such stories, a varied series of events unfolded. What those events were and what happened to the children when they returned to human form vary with the storyteller. The version chosen by Oisin Kelly, who created this piece, is one of hope, of strong people emerging from restraint — no coincidence this, as the piece was meant to honor those who fought for Ireland’s independence, and it was unveiled on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, in 1966. In front of the statue is a reflecting pool. In mosaic on the bottom of the pool are images of weapons, a design meant to call to mind the custom found through archaeology, of peoples declaring peace between by throwing their weapons into a body of water. All the more brought to mind when Queen Elizabeth, making her historic visit to Ireland, placed a wreath here honoring those who who died in the Risings across the centuries, rising against those who held the crown she now wears.
Music and words, courage, change, myth, hope, history, legend: all of these are part of Ireland past and present, and part of Dublin and its statues. Each of these four works of arts defines and relates to the spaces around it differing ways: people may give Molly Malone a cheerful smile, or sit down for a chat on Patrick Kavanagh’s bench. The Famine Memorial may call for silence or for discussion or for looking about at the Docklands and the quays from which so many sailed, and in the light of history, not that long past; the Children of Lir might call for thoughts on the power of trust or the nature of transformation, or the value of myth — or of reaching out for hope. Whatever responses these art works call forth, the statues themselves and the responses to them are all part of the continuing story of Dublin.